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HP Propelling Linux Into Truly 'Big' Time

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In a move that suggests Linux is finally ready for prime time, Hewlett-Packard is giving the free software a bigger role on some of its toughest servers.

Martin Fink, long HP's point man on Linux, now oversees the NonStop unit.

As the name implies, these are industrial-strength computers -- HP's most expensive -- built to never break down.

Fink's mission: Make sure Linux and other open-source programs that HP looks to use are up to NonStop standards.

And that mission remains unchanged after HP on Tuesday said it would cut its work force by 10% and make several other structural changes to boost its results, part of a long-expected shake-up from new Chief Executive Mark Hurd.

Open-source software has caught on fast as techies embrace the freedom it brings. Unlike most commercial applications, open-source software lets anyone see the underlying code. People can copy it, tweak it and give away their improved versions.

But Linux and other open-source projects have mostly stuck to less demanding tasks on smaller machines.

That's changing. Linux is working its way into bigger systems, and Fink says it won't be long before the software rules the data center server segment.

Bringing open-source software to the NonStop platform is a big part of HP's plan to catch that wave. Fink recently spoke with IBD about his plans for the unit.

IBD: How did you get to oversee two distinct parts of HP's business, Linux and NonStop?

Fink: It's not all that intuitive to a lot of people.

I want to stress that there's no temporary assignment here. My job with the open-source operation continues to be permanent, and my job with the NonStop group is a permanent assignment.

IBD: How are the jobs related?

Fink: Over the last five years, we have seen Linux grow from the edge of the network to running infrastructure to starting to grow into (other) lines of business.

If you map that out over time, what you see is Linux getting to the point of really penetrating the data center.

Now, we could have lots of arguments about what the timing is and the degree of penetration. Some will argue that there's already penetration today. That's probably true.

Others will say Linux is still not ready for the data center. That's also probably true. It depends on the customer.

IBD: Is Linux ready for NonStop?

Fink: Our engineers were already working together in a number of areas to combine open-source and NonStop stuff in innovative and creative ways.
Then we saw the opportunity to get ahead of this curve.

We know that's where open source and Linux will end up. We can start to drive and be ahead of that growth in open source.

We're taking all the experience, knowledge and capabilities we have in NonStop and seeing how we can bring all of those to open source.

IBD: What's your first order of business?

Fink: I still need to run NonStop as the NonStop business. So there's a piece of that in which I put Linux and open source aside and realize NonStop is responsible for running the stock exchanges of the world and connecting most cell phones.

Over the past seven weeks or so, I've been making sure I understand that business. There's an expectation that's very high from those customers that the business continues to run unaffected.

IBD: What about your Linux and open-source duties?

Fink: Another piece of the job is connecting the dots (between NonStop and open-source software).
IBD: What's going on there?

Fink: We have a number of things we're looking at -- some of those things I'm not ready to talk about yet.

They include everything from how to potentially get Linux running on NonStop to taking the 200 open-source projects that run on NonStop and turning that into 2,000 open-source projects running on NonStop.

There's a variety of other activities we think are interesting and will bring a lot of enterprise-class credibility to Linux and open source.

IBD: Your rivals have embraced open-source software to some degree. How is HP's approach different?

Fink: Dell has yet to make moves to accelerate or support Linux and open source in any form in the data center.

They're basically jamming boxes through the supply chain. If Linux lands on some of them, they're happy. So there's no real competitive angle there.

IBD: What about Sun Microsystems?

Fink: Sun has tried a couple of different things. They've flip-flopped a number of times (between) "We love Linux" and "We hate Linux." Right now, they're on the "We hate (Linux software seller) Red Hat" bandwagon.

Solaris 10 (on Intel-compatible systems, which Sun recently made open source) has not gained a lot of traction from what we've seen. They're not a big competitive force.

IBD: And what about IBM It's been a huge Linux booster.

Fink: IBM has long touted Linux on the mainframe.
Yet we don't see a lot of installations out there being used in a constructive way.

Rather than just do Linux on a mainframe, we want to bring those mainframe-class capabilities to Linux and open source. That's the part IBM hasn't done.

IBM talks loud about open source, but I don't see a lot of credibility there.

IBM hates the GPL.

(GPL is the general public license used by Linux and many other open-source programs. It requires anyone using the software to offer offshoot products as free, open software.)

They do everything they can to avoid the GPL because they don't like the GPL model.

What they're after is to chain (customers) to (its middleware platform) WebSphere and (its database software) DB/2.

IBD: Which makes sense from a shareholder perspective. What is HP after?

Fink: The Linux market is growing 30% to 35% a year. Our goal is to capture as much of that market as we can as it grows -- all of it if we can.

By Ken Spencer Brown
Investor's Business Daily

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